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Inside the voting for 40 Under 40

Recognising the state’s young entrepreneurs and leaders, the 40 Under 40 Awards is both a barometer and crystal ball for South Australia’s economic transformation. Without giving too much away, we share this look inside the judging session.

May 22, 2024, updated May 24, 2024

Now in its seventh year, InDaily and CityMag’s 40 Under 40 Awards offers an introduction to the leaders, trailblazers and innovators who call South Australia home.

This year’s 40 alumni and individual prize winners – including the top honour, the First Among Equals Award – will be announced at the gala awards dinner on June 27 at Adelaide Oval.

We sat in on the judging discussions to get a feel for what the judges are looking for.

But first, a bit of background about the process.

Applications

The panel of nine judges represents diverse sectors, from biomed to social enterprise to venture capital.

All of the nomination applications are read by InDaily chief of staff Jim Plouffe, who has been reporting on the state’s business sector for many years.

Plouffe’s shortlist of applications – now just one-third of the initial number – are all read by the chair of judges Joel Abraham. They are equally divided into two groups, as are the judges, who read every application in their respective group.

Each judge allocated points from 10 to 1 for their own top 10. The judges’ points are tallied and the nominees ranked.

This ranking is the focus of the judging discussions. Interestingly, no nominee has made the top 10 for every single judge in their group.

Before all the members of the judging panel have arrived, those present are casually chatting about their shortlists.

Some awards are harder than others to identify a winner. “No one really stood out for this one,” says Community Corporate founder and CEO Carmen Garcia.

However, there is general agreement about having several options for the Social Impact Award. It appears, in hard times like now, good people doing good naturally come to the fore.

The session gets underway and copies of the ranking sheet are distributed. Everyone quietly studies them.

Jim Plouffe does an introduction. “I read them all, it would have been a very hard choice,” he says.

He has filtered out those that don’t meet the age limit, are less impressive, are now based interstate, or are on the way to achieving big things but won’t be worthy for another year or two.

Plouffe calls himself the “grandfather of the 40 Under 40”. Involved since its inception, he is keen to see “really open debate and rigour to make sure we get the best 40”.

“Now is the time to go into bat for people,” he adds.

Final 40

The first task is to agree on the final 40.

There is some support for one nominee, a migrant and parent who would have faced additional challenges in launching a business. kwpx managing director Sam Davies notes that “judges bring their own lens, while not being biased”.

This year’s list includes “hardly anyone” from the tech sector and there is consensus that everyone was expecting more. They move on.

Weighing up the achievements of two possible inclusions, the discussion turns to the people who drive business growth.

William Buck business advisory director Matthew Illman says, “I always rate the founders more highly than the intrapreneurs. There are differences when you’re managing a small business on a growth trajectory … compared with being one of several big cogs in a large company.”

Carmen Garcia agrees, “Their challenges are different, but do they both still merit being in 40 Under 40?”

Over 20 per cent of those who will eventually make the final 40 are founders or co-founders.

South Australians generally underplay their abilities and achievements and this makes judging trickier. Pushing oneself forward and providing a solid argument for inclusion comes easier to some than others.

CMAX chief business development officer Zoe Harrison says, “I found it hard when judging. Some people are better writers and articulate their case well.”

This leads to a discussion of capabilities and how to assess them. The judges have all done their own research on each nominee and their organisation before scoring them. Sam Davies notes: “Sometimes the application doesn’t match and underplays how well the business is doing – you’ve got to do your own research to realise they’re worthy.”

Those who have made the shortlist are all impressive. “When I think of the top 40, it’s in 20 years’ time and we’re going to look back and say they made a big impact,” says Joel Abraham.

In or out?

The discussion moves to the nominations that have not been progressed. While respectful, Jim Plouffe is blunt: “If your job is to be the COO, that’s what you should do.”

Carmen Garcia suggests “there’s a kind of male entrepreneur that people don’t want to reward.” The thought hangs in the air; everyone is studying the sheet and checking their notes.

Looking down the list, Jim Plouffe announces, “You should be a partner before 40 if you’re doing your job.”

There is agreement that it’s important to apply consistency to the evaluation process.

Names are shuffled – a couple are added in, others dropped out. There are discussions around whether some are simply building on their families’ legacies.

The individual award winners will come from the final 40, and this prompts another lively discussion about financials, turnover and staff.

“I got the vibe she was going somewhere, but you have to take into consideration her length of tenure in a role,” says Joel Abraham. “I’m excited to see what could be achieved in the future.”

Applying the lens of age to any achievement is inherent in the judging process.

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“They’ve got time” pops up more than once for nominees who hover around the age 30. The judges predict they could be potential award winners. If they are included in the 40 Under 40 alumni, they will not be able to reapply. The wish is that they come back in a couple of years and win.

Those on the cusp of turning 40 also catch the judges’ attention. Have they achieved enough when this is their last chance?

Job titles carry weight, company names less so. “If the big company name wasn’t there, would they be in?” says Matt Illman.

Similarly, aspiration is not enough. “Sometimes people write really impressive plans for the future,” says Rebecca Dolan of Adelaide Business School at The University of Adelaide. “That’s easy to say, but will they make this happen?”

But culture and how someone cares for their team counts.

Finalising the list

One hour into the meeting and 39 have made the cut. It is roughly an even split between men and women. Joel Abraham asks the judges about their ‘maybe lists’.

“They’ve written lots of drive and innovation words in the application,” says Zoe Harrison of one, noting “It’s a great start-up, but nothing over and above.”

The judges scan their notes and go into bat for a final nominee. Their lists include ones to watch and those with nascent businesses.

There is debate about one nominee, with one judge saying they are “doing due diligence”. They look back at the 40. “She’s quite political,” they add, to which InDaily journalist David Simmons replies, “I think she’s of the times and a valid inclusion.”

The process of getting into the 40 Under 40 starts with being nominated by someone or people can self-nominate. The nominee then submits their application against the criteria.

This year, there are fewer nominations but more conversions into applications. Are we seeing a culture change in Adelaide with people more confident about their achievements?

Nearly there

Fifteen minutes later, there is a unanimous 40.

The discussion turns to who will be further honoured with an individual award. The sponsoring companies are represented within the judging panel and their representatives kick off each award discussion.

kwpx sponsors the Creative Thinker Award and Sam Davies says there is one standout, but this is challenged by someone more familiar with the nominee’s sector. Another name is thrown into the ring and discussed. Both are possible winners; it needs mulling over and is left to be confirmed.

Ditto for the Discovery Award sponsored by CMAX – the state’s life sciences sector offers up several possible recipients.

Sponsored by SA Business Chamber, the Rural & Regional Award has a clear winner. “Turnover was great and this is a good regional story,” says the Chamber’s Elisa Luck.

There are multiple worthy candidates for The Entrepreneurial Award sponsored by William Buck, but ultimately it is an easy decision.

Not so easy is the Emerging Industries Award. Piper Alderman partner Joshua Annese is torn between standout nominees and this also ends up as a TBC.

For the Game Changer Award sponsored by Adelaide Business School, one name is floated by Rebecca Dolan for a nominee “doing it a bit differently”. This is backed up by Joel Abraham, but then another name is raised. It is the pdf attachment to their application that impresses – and that decides it.

Moving quickly now, the exceptional candidates are easy to argue for: the Social Impact Award sponsored by Community Corporate; a unanimous vote for the First Among Equals Award sponsored by Solstice Media; and the Inspiring Female Leaders Award because “she’s got fire”.

Jim Plouffe leads the discussion on the Inspiring Future Leaders Award. Adelaide Oval general manager of partnerships and sales Jo Thomson and Rebecca Dolan advocating for one particular nominee. The back story is compelling and the person is “quite innovative”.

The Sustainable Business Leader Award is cut and dried with one standout. But the room becomes quiet. Is there less focus on sustainability for businesses nowadays?

We have our list

There is one last decision to be made.

Although the total scores for each nominee remain hidden from the judges on the ranking sheet, the ranking helps to determine the First Among Equals.

It comes down to two before they unanimously agree on one.

Awards done, the judges break into smaller chats reinforcing their decisions and Joel Abraham says, “I think we’ve got our 40 Under 40 Awards.”

The 40 Under 40 Awards program is helping to bring attention to a new generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders in the state. The winners will be announced at a gala event on Thursday, June 27. Purchase tickets here.

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